EDITORIAL: A casual talk about “arming civilians”

In a recent speech during the launch and oath-taking of the Global Coalition of Lingkod Bayan Advocacy Support Groups and Force Multipliers at the Philippine National Police headquarters at Camp Crame, Quezon City, President Duterte outlined what is supposed to be a new policy direction on law enforcement — the arming of “qualified” civilians to augment the functions of the police and the armed forces.

He was quoted by the press as stating: ““If you have this coalition, you have a list of people who are there and who can arm themselves. I will order the police. If you are qualified, get a gun and help us enforce the laws.”

It is one of those days when the president would utter a statement, obviously from the left field or one that is sprang as a surprise even to his alter egos in Malacañang, who would often end up scrambling to clarify or walk back either as a joke or a hyperbole.

In the last six years of this administration, the president has essayed this practice of laying down major policy directions in broad strokes that had no benefit of legislative deliberations or careful planning and brainstorming. It is both amusing and frustrating, depending on which side of the political divide an observer to his style of governance sits.

Take as an example his “independent foreign policy” which Duterte supposedly cast in the early months of his presidency via a long-winded rant against the United States. Until today it remains a nondescript policy that gets twisted in all directions depending on peculiarity of the moment. Even the Americans are grappling to understand it in terms of meats and bounds.

Fortunately or otherwise, the pronouncement from the President to start arming civilians has not taken precedence at this time. This is because as much as it is a de facto policy, given that it came out of the mouth of the chief executive, it came up short without an executive order or a certified bill in Congress. If the administration is to push hard for the measure, something along this line should happen.

There were several interest groups, human rights advocates primarily, that immediately flagged the presidential pronouncement as a dangerous sign and expressed opposition to it at the outset.  “Arming largely untrained and unaccountable militias is a recipe for another human rights disaster under President Duterte,” the international lobby group Human Rights Watch warned in a statement.

A policy direction to arm civilians as part of the government’s campaign against criminality is disappointing at best, but it is unlikely to carry on as a concrete policy in the remaining year of the current administration.

Given the reality that Duterte’s presidency is winding down on its final year, it is unlikely to take a central role in the government’s anti-insurgency campaign and what shape it should proceed, unless the President doubles down on it with some concrete instructions along the line of revitalizing the similar concept of the CAFGU that emerged from a similar policy agenda that was laid out in the 80s by then president Ferdinand Marcos. Only then can it become a real cause for concern.

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